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The Seine Also Rises

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For several days now, the Seine has been drawing a crowd. The international press, tourists and Parisians have come to look at the river because it is uncharacteristically high. Before I had seen it myself, I assumed the reason for all the curiosity was novelty. We’ve been told that the chances of the river breaking its banks are extremely low, but Paris can so easily be mistaken for a city frozen in time that changes in its landscape, even temporary ones, ask to be witnessed.

Setting eyes on the engorged river, though, mud brown and churning viciously around the bare branches of its towpath trees, stirred in me an unease I had not expected: that one day, though probably not today, the Seine may begin rising like this, and not stop. And it reminded me that Parisians have long harboured a fear of their city ending up underwater.

I have read about this in poetry and seen it in art. And Laurence Osborne’s Paris Dreambook (1990) begins with a fantasy of the city drowning:

At first there was no sound as the water rose from the drains, lapped over the kerbs and restaurant doors, spilled untidily into the underground stations and filled up the cavities between the platforms … And as the oily slime made its way into the shops, garages and concierge’s lounges the population took themselves screaming to the rooftops. Everywhere clinging to makeshift rafts, scampering like rodents up church facades and famous monuments … The city finally went under, all except for the proud tip of the Eiffel Tower.

I found the scenes that Osborne describes easy to visualise, because I had seen them before. Not quite on the cataclysmic scale that Osborne imagines, but in photographs of the great flood of 1910, when the Seine burst its banks, and for a number of months, Haussmann’s boulevards filled with water and Paris was a city transformed.

Parisians fear another ‘crue centennale’, a 100-year flood, which they say is long overdue. And it will happen again: Paris was built on a floodplain and the weather will only behave itself for so long.

The fear of a drowned Paris is a fear for the submergence of all cities. Its star may have waned in the last fifty to a hundred years, but there are few places more synonymous with the perceived triumph of Western civilisation. (And it is where the most recent international agreement on climate change was signed.) To see it returned to the waves, to imagine fish swimming the corridors of the Louvre or octopuses nestling in the gargoyles of Notre Dame, is to contemplate the end of all things.

Comments

  1. Gardiner Linda says:

    A film from 2007, ‘Musée haut, musée bas’ (based on a play of the same name from 2004), envisages just this scenario. Set in an imaginary cross between the Louvre and the Grand Palais, it follows the gradual rise of the waters. The staff are increasingly unable to move the priceless works fast enough to the higher floors. Then there are no higher floors. The closing scene shows the surviving staff escaping from the roof on a raft made of paintings nailed together, striking attitudes copied from Géricault’s ‘Raft of the Méduse’. It didn’t get great reviews but I found it unsettlingly brilliant.

    At the same time, France is still the land of infrastructure, and one reason the flood of 1910 won’t happen again soon is that a massive water management system has since been constructed upstream of Paris. There is now talk of extending this, digging artificial reservoirs where water can be drawn off in extreme situations, and so on. I’m selfishly hoping this will keep the waters at bay at least during my lifetime.

  2. perivale says:

    A somewhat pedantic remark (based on something I read the other day while on the Paris metro, heading to work): the ‘crue centennal’ isn’t a ‘100 year flood’ in the sense of an event that only happens once every one hundred years (that would be “crue centenaire”). In fact it describes the kind of flood that has a one-in-one hundred chance of happening. And it has happened, in turns out, I think 2 or 3 times since 1910!

    • Thomas Jones says:

      In English, too, a ‘100-year flood’ is one that has a 1/100 chance of happening in any given year.

      • John Cowan says:

        When I began to attend Case Institute of Technology in Cleveland in the fall of 1975, the president gave a talk to the freshmen. At the time, the campus was covered with mud, and he told us that this was a result of a 100-year flood. In fact, it was the third 100-year flood in the last ten years.

        The moral of the lecture was not to mistake statistics for predictions, and in addition, not to trust 100-year or 500-year claims in the New World — by definition, there is not enough data to go on!

  3. Graucho says:

    When water get warmer it evaporates more. When air gets warmer it holds more moisture. Western Europe is downwind of a very large pond. Global wetting for us has been on the cards for over a decade now. The glass is half full however. Some well thought out hydro electric schemes would yield flood control, renewable energy, irrigation and drinking water. If only legislative assemblies attracted more physicists and engineers instead of lawyers and accountants. Oh well :-(

    • Anaximander says:

      Then how lucky France is to revere its civil engineers as serious professionals. Most of its high watersheds are managed well without anyone noticing – apart from the local hotel where the maintenance engineer stays.

      Paris, however, is not doing so well this time and the rats are indeed climbing buildings after being flushed from the drains — and Franciliens are worried they’re on the march all over.


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